Sunday, June 30, 2013

Radio Bristol Slot

If you can bear it, here's 10 minutes of my life story from Radio Bristol/Somerset this morning, starts 43m in (it seems to be easier to get the timings in pop-up player). I sound more gravelly than usual, it's probably the hay fever.

Hope you like the music selection.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

We don't need any new church initiatives

"By every means possible the clergy must be set free from all hindrances, spiritual as well as material, which prevent them from exercising an evangelistic ministry. More particularly must they be given time to fulfil their primary responsibility of training the laity for evangelism"

It's 68 years since that sentence was written in the CofE report 'Towards the Conversion of England'. How different things would be if we'd actually got round to implementing it. How different things will be if we do.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

General Synod: Sneaking in a radical growth strategy whilst everyone is looking at women bishops

I've been critical in the past for the absence of mission from the agenda of General Synod. Looking at some of the papers for sessions starting next week, I'm quietly encouraged.

The full agenda is here, and most of the Saturday is going to be spent in small groups trying to thrash out the women bishops issue (again). The day closes with a 90 minute debate on GS1895. Stay awake at the back there! This is a half-time review of the Church of Englands 3 priorities for the current 5 year cycle. They are:
 - contributing as the national Church to the common good;
- facilitating the growth of the Church;
- re-imagining the Church’s ministry.

Each of these will be the subject of a major General Synod debate in the next 12 months, with church growth kicking this off in November.

The paper makes it quite clear which of the 3 is considered to be top priority:
The opportunities for contributing to the common good at a time of considerable social and economic distress are enormous. But the Church of England’s capacity will be less than it would wish unless it can also make progress in reversing the long term decline in numbers and increase in the age profile of its membership. (p2)

(there is a)  ‘mistaken conflation of evangelism and evangelicalism…growth is an authentic priority for all the strands within Anglicansim and should be a practical priority for all’

from the conclusion: it is, rightly, the challenge of growth that is increasingly at the centre of the church’s agendas. As in New Testament days there is a sharp awareness of the challenge posed by an abundance of fields white to harvest and a relatively limited supply of labourers (p10)

Hidden away are some radical thoughts: in a section on vocations there is a growing sense that the current stress on the individual’s sense of vocation needs to be redressed to a greater extent by reference to the kind of clergy who are suited to the present mission challenge and especially to meet the need for greater diversity. I.e. the CofE is looking at rewriting the criteria for leadership selection to put mission leadership as a much higher priority. 

The paper outlines some of the work being done under each of the 3 headings, and adds in a paper by Steve Croft, bishop of Sheffield. It's worth a read, outlining some of the reasons why we don't talk about church growth in the CofE:
"The agendas of bishops meetings and other meetings are dominated by questions of gender and ministry and human sexuality leaving little quality space for deeper engagement with evangelization"...


and suggests '7 disciplines of evangelisation', which is a really interesting section: watch this space on this one. It's classic Croft: take some practices and ideas which have been beyond the pale in Anglican circles and describe them in terms and ways which bring them into the fold. Thus 'ecclesial formation' (church growth) 'forming new ecclesial communities' (church planting). You may see a lot more of this quoted in the months and years to come. 

The Croft paper is also here, on his blog as Bishop of Sheffield. 

Finally, there is GS Misc 1054. Otherwise known as "Making new disciples: the Growth of the Church of England" I almost feel I need to repeat that title, just in case you thought you'd misread it first time round. It's a companion paper to the Quinquennium review above, and makes the theological and practical case for prioritising church growth in the CofE. It recognises that decline can't go on for much longer without the parish system ceasing to function, and that traditional Anglican outreach to the 'church fringe' is no longer enough. It's the kind of honest appraisal of where we're at as a church that I've been wittering on about for some time

Some outlines of a national and diocesan church growth strategy are proposed, down to very basic stuff such as actually talking about it. I've just received the Bath and Wells annual review for 2012, there is not a single mention anywhere of diocesan membership or attendance. Amid all the lists of achievements and met targets, you'd be forgiven for thinking we were growing and thriving and didn't need to do much differently. We aren't, and we do.  

There is some key stuff in the paper - e.g. on recruiting and equipping clergy who in turn can train their lay members as evangelists and agents of outreach, on mission action planning as a growth tool, on benchmarks of good practice in basic things like welcoming newcomers, and identifying the 'levers for growth' available to diocesan and national structures. It's well worth a read.

A few short extracts:

these quinquennial goals give us a clear framework of spiritual growth - numerical growth - kingdom growth; all of which need to be held inextricably together. A vibrant Church which grows new disciples will have more energy to transform the world through the power of God’s love. This holistic vision of growth is focused on the Kingdom of God, not just on church attendance. Yet without a regular flow of new disciples, the Church will be less and less able to fulfil its calling to be an agent of God’s transformation in the world.

There will be great danger, however, if our  motivation for making new disciples is a desire to preserve the Church of England, or ‘to keep the show on the road’

The urgent missionary task facing the Church is to make new disciples for Jesus Christ who will seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. The priority of growing the number of new believers is not for the sake of the Church itself, but to enable the Church to fulfil God’s mission to be a sign, agent and foretaste of his Kingdom, where ultimately every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Turning around the decline in the number of new disciples is a massive task for the Church: far too big a task to be delegated to a small task group; way beyond what the National Church Institutions can achieve; more profound than a General Synod debate or two can fix. It will only happen if people at every level in the Church are enabled to catch the vision, pray passionately and work together. 

amen to that.

Update: Justin Welby has just appointed an adviser on Evangelism and Witness. Judging by this, and what the Archbishop has already said, I think we can say he takes all of the above very seriously.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Safeguarding - are we missing something?

The Church of England and the Methodist church are currently updating their safeguarding policies to keep abreast of the change from CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) to DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks. DBS checks will have 'portability', which means an individual only needs one, rather than a separate check for every role they have in working with children and vulnerable adults.

Following guidance from the Charity Commissioners, the CofE has published its latest guidance for Dioceses and parishes.

Along with 13,000 other parishes, we're trying to process what all this means. This paragraph (from p42) is of particular interest:

Members of the Parochial Church Council (PCC), church council or circuit meeting

Where the parish, church or circuit works with children and/ or vulnerable adults, then all  members of these governing bodies, as Charity Trustees, are deemed to be in Group 2 and as such are eligible for a criminal record check. The detailed justification for this is that prior to the Protection of Freedoms Act they were engaged in Regulated Activity according to the previous definition, and therefore remain eligible for a criminal record check without barring information.

....A minimum of three checks should always be undertaken: the safeguarding lead person and the two church wardens (C of E) or senior stewards (MC). For the other members, the meeting can decide on what checks are appropriate. It would not normally be deemed necessary to require checks from the all trustees.

This is a bit confusing: Our PCC has a membership of just over 20, and we have a children and families worker (employed by the PCC), midweek childrens groups and Junior Church on Sunday.  Will PCC members, even if they have no direct involvement with childrens work, now have to be vetted? It's not actually that clear - they are eligible, but not required? When would checks be required? How can the meeting decide what is appropriate? Multiply that by 13,000 Anglican parishes, plus all the Methodist circuits (and equivalents in other churches) and that's a lot of paperwork.

Does there comes a point at which a system designed to protect children and vulnerable adults actually begins to do more harm than good? We rightly are getting much more vigilant about abuse and the kind of behaviour that safeguarding is aiming to stamp out. But no tally is kept of the childrens and vulnerable adults activities which close, or never open, and the volunteers who don't materialise, because of the quantities of paperwork and bureaucracy. And where does it stop? Every one of the 102 adults at our church on Sunday had contact with children. Our regular members have regular contact with children - will they all need vetting too?

The irony is that the best thing the government could do to safeguard children is to invest in parenting. Whilst volunteers jump through more hoops than a dog agility champion, parents are simply left to their own devices, with occasionally tragic results.

We recently recruited a number of volunteers to do pastoral visiting on behalf of the church. Wider church safeguarding policy rightly required us to use a 'safe recruitment form'. All well and good, except that using the form might have recruited us people who were 'safe', but there was no scope to ask about  pastoral competence or gifts, we had to reinvent the form to make it fit for purpose.

This is symptomatic of the bigger picture. It seems absurd to me that so much time and effort will go into vetting volunteers, some of whom are going to have no contact at all with the people we are trying to protect, whilst there is no national policy or framework for equipping mums and dads with the basic skills of good parenting and relationships. We may even get to a point where statistically, the safest place for a child to be is away from their parents. Are we straining out gnats and swallowing camels?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

'Explore my Beliefs' vs 'Do my duty to God'

The revision of the Guide promise last week has received a mixed reaction, including here. Yesterday I heard a couple of local guide leaders give their reactions to the change in the 'God' clause - on the one hand some concern at the dropping of a cherished promise, but also a sense of opportunity.

Which got me thinking. The guide promise to 'explore my beliefs' is more dynamic than the version it has replaced: 'love my God' (and the previous 'do my duty to God'). Guides will now make a promise to explore what they believe. Whether or not the church thinks that's a step backwards, we need to get over it (the Guides don't belong to us, they can do as they see fit so long as it's legal), and get with their programme. If thousands of girls across the country are promising to explore their beliefs, surely that's a great opportunity for local churches and Christians to say 'we'd be delighted to help you do that, if you'd like us to.'

The new promise also shifts the corporate focus from 'serve my country' to ''serve my community'. Again, this is right into home turf (I hope!) for most churches. If exploring faith is one possible point of connection, community action is another, and it shouldn't be beyond the wit of most churches to offer opportunities to local guide units for community service, whether it's the lunch club, food bank, old folks Christmas party or whatever.

Finally, back to the faith bit - I do actually wonder whether 'explore my beliefs' might actually be closer to the grain of Christian living than 'do my duty to God'. Whichever way you go with this, the facts on the ground are that the entire guide movement is thinking about God, faith, belief etc., and asking a lot of questions about it. Isn't that a good conversation to be part of?

Church of England Headline generator

Superb bit of work from Archdruid Eileen at the Beaker Folk, now you don't need to read the Telegraph or the Mail.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Flashmob Wedding

This is absolutely brilliant

Full marks to Rev Kate Bottley, for a wedding nobody will ever forget. Full story here. I wish I had the courage to dance with such exuberance, but I'm glad to belong to a church where someone has.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Pagan Church? Don't You Believe It

Update: detailed piece from Steve Hollinghurst on what the CofE is really doing, and how the Telegraph's spin on the story was way off the mark.

There are various outraged noises in response to a piece on Radio 4 yesterday, talking about how Christians respond to events like the gathering of 20,000 people for the summer solstice.

"The church of England is making efforts to recruit the increasing number of people who describe themselves as pagans" (Radio 4 presenter)

You can hear the report here, at 1 hour 25 minutes in. Robert Piggott the BBC correspondent talks about Anglicans 'reformulating' their faith. Steve Hollinghurst from CMS talks about a 'pagan church, where Christ is very much at the centre', and goes on to describe a church which worships Jesus but which draws on the kind of practices that pagans would engage with. That's not massively different from a 'biker church' or some other form of church planted into a subculture. Christians have been involved in outreach to pagan and new age subculture for a while - e.g. the Jesus Deck, or Spirit of Life, a crossover event hosted at Coventry Cathedral a few years back.

I don't see anything to be scared of in this. A standard church of England service simply won't hit the spot with the kind of people attracted to paganism. A few years ago I did some research into 'creation spirituality', a neopagan movement based around the writings of former Catholic priest Matthew Fox (not the guy in Lost, another one), and found that many of its adherents were former members of mainstream churches, who had left because the church was so disconnected from nature, green issues, human experience and community.

1. If anyone has a problem with what Steve Hollinghurst said, or the other contributors to the Radio 4 piece, why not engage him directly? Isn't this what Jesus tells us to do?

2. Steve explicitly talked about 'Christ at the centre', in a piece where the BBC had clearly pulled sentences out of a bigger interview. Do we really imagine that a short radio piece will give us the whole story? I'm constantly suprised at the ability of Christians to rush to judgement before seeking to understand things or find out all the facts.

3. Having worked (briefly) with Steve in the past, I would want to commend him for his courage and creativity. The piece was talking about outreach to pagans and those sympathetic to paganism. It's a small but growing number, and as DL Moody once said about evangelism "my way of doing it is better than your way of not doing it". Rather than talk about the death of the CofE, lets talk about why some people are turning to paganism rather than to Christ, and how we should respond to that.

4. If you want to get worried about paganism infiltrating the church, then talk to the Episcopal Church in the USA, who received Fox as a priest following his ejection from the Roman Catholic church. Fox's writings effectively present a form of paganism cloaked in Christian language (radically redefined to accomodate Fox's beliefs). He was received publicly by the bishop of San Francisco, and is a regular feature at Grace Cathedral.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

God still Guides, but Guides don't God

(update: some second thoughts on this here)

The UK Girl Guides have dropped 'do my duty to God' from their promise, in an effort to be more inclusive to girls who don't believe in God. The new promise reads:

I promise that I will do my best, 
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs
To serve the Queen and my community
To help other people
and To keep the Guide (Brownie) law

Its easy to see the logic. After all, my own Church of England baptises children into the church on the basis of the faith of their parents and godparents, recognising that children aren't old enough to answer for themeselves about their faith until later in life. If we don't baptise 8 year olds based on their own stated faith, then we can hardly criticise the Guides for dropping the God clause. It's a good organisation, and they want to be more appealing. It's worth noting, however, that the Scout movement is growing steadily, so promising to God clearly isn't putting that many people off. 

Having said that, it's sad to see it go, another survival of a more overtly Christian era which has been hollowed out by secularism. To be honest, I'd be surprised to find many guiding or scouting groups which really took 'do my duty to God' seriously. My own experience of 30 years ago was church parade (during which we played innumerable games of hangman and noughts and crosses to while away the time in the pews) and the Lords prayer at every meeting, though the lifestyle and language of the scout leaders the rest of the time wasn't exactly what you'd call a good Christian example. God was a duty, but little more.

This is from the Guides own website:

Girlguiding is not and never has been a Christian organisation. Girlguiding is open to all girls and adults, whether they follow a specific religion or not. Spiritual development is part of the Girlguiding programme, but this is not limited to one or any specific religion, or indeed any religion.

It's interesting to look at some of the reasoning behind the change: the Guides FAQ page makes reference to the strong faith of many guides, and a desire to take 'spiritual development' seriously:

Spirituality is open and accessible to everyone. It is concerned with the inner life and its meaning and purpose, and with making sense of the world around us. Spiritual development is an independent journey that continues throughout our lives.

Within the guiding programme we define spiritual development as making your own spiritual choices, respecting the spiritual choices of others and achieving inner peace.

Sounds nice, but the focus has turned from outward ('do my duty to God') to inward ('making your own spiritual choices...inner peace'). On the one hand there's an integrity about this which is good, but I don't actually believe 'spirituality' exists as a free-floating entity. We are spiritual beings made for relationship with God; what makes sense of our 'spirituality' is having God as an external reference point. We find inner peace when we 'find our rest in Thee', in the words of Augustine. What this attempts to find in 'spirituality' is already there in God, and if we are made by God for relationship with God, then the goal of spiritual development is a mature and committed relationship with God. If there's no God, and we have no spirit, and the only authentic 'spiritual choice' is atheism, then the British Humanist Association should be just as twitchy about this as the sentiment it replaces. The worry is that this creates a spiritual no-girls-land, with brownies and guides being led around the spiritual shadowlands on a 'journey' with no destination. 

I just wonder if the promise above is a bit of a compromise, a bit like an ecumenical act of worship, trying to find language that nobody can reject, which turns out to be language with very little content. 

So what of the new promise? What does 'be true to myself' actually mean? It's the kind of statement you expect to hear from a contestant on a reality TV show, but good luck to the person who has to develop a robust syllabus to back it up. I'm sure there must be something a bit more robust, a bit chewier, that could be put here, but then with 40,000 responses to the consultation perhaps this was the common mind of the respondents.

The other aspect to note is how much more self-absorbed this promise is than the one it will replace: "I will do my best to love my God, to serve my Queen and my country, to help other people and to keep the Guide law."

The entire focus of the current (until September) promise is away from self, towards others - God, Queen, country, others, Guide law. The new promise is headed by a vague narcissism, the focus is me, myself, I. And already it builds in a tension. What if a Guide develops republican views, can she be true to herself and serve the Queen? Or what is someone is innately and naturally selfish? Can she be true to herself and help others? 

By introducing two locuses (locii?) of value, one within and one without, I think the new promise could create as much confusion as the one it replaces. Because it starts with the Brownies/Guides making a promise to themselves, with no objective content, it immediately creates a conflict between objective duty and subjective feeling. 

Maybe it's all part of a cunning evangelistic strategy. By the end of their time in the Guiding movement, teenage girls will be crying out for a way of matching personal integrity and fulfilment with moral duty and higher purpose. Enter Jesus, promising life in all its fullness (personal) and calling people to lay down their lives for others (moral). Maybe the promise will create so much cognitive dissonance that in a few years times the Guides will be crying out for God again.

(apologies for the formatting issues!)
Update: thoughts from elsewhere -
Richard Hall (connexions)  - a similar concern to mine, that by turning the focus from others onto self the new promise loses something important.
Heresy Corner excellent piece, teasing out some of the inconsistencies and implicit values in the new promise
God and Politics wonders why Guides no longer have to promise to serve their country, but still pledge to serve the Queen.
And here's the perspective of a Christian Guider, who welcomes the change, and notes that it's lack of adult leaders, rather than the wording of promises, which is the main thing holding the movement back. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

GPS Worship

A couple of great stories have gone up on the Fresh Expressions site, one of a Car Boot Fair church - something I've long wondered about for Yeovil but not done much about - and one for Geochurche. I only heard of  'geocaching' when a church member explained it to me a few weeks ago, and loved the creativity of turning it into a spiritual pursuit in the Peak District:

There is a considerable, weekend population taking part in everything from mountain-biking and rock climbing to rambling, canoeing and… geocaching. This involves people searching for hidden things, or 'caches', by using Ordnance Survey grid coordinates. It's like treasure hunting, with participants using their smartphones, GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking devices or traditional maps to find a series of caches as part of a wilderness 'adventure'.

What we plan to do with Geochurche is to hide elements of a service - including prayers and meditations - in pods/caches around the Peak District on routes that can be used by walkers and mountain bikers. The grid coordinates for the 'hidden treasure' will then be shared on our website - along with a final reference point and time for a 'meet'
This gathering in the wilderness will include opportunity to think about what it has been like to share in such an experience. This will not be the same for everyone as we will set it up in such a way so that different people will access different pods, depending on the time and mode of transport they use - and not everyone will be able to find them. This will hopefully lead to time for reflection on our spiritual journey, some songs around the fire and a sharing of bread and wine.
I was recently discussing the first half of Pauls letter to the Romans with a group, and someone commented that it was a very dense, theological letter with not a lot of imagery and application. It struck me that, yes, that's how we read it, but in Pauls day it would have been image-rich. For us, terms like redemption, adoption, sin offering have all become technical theological terms. In 50AD (or whenever) they were daily realities, images drawn from everyday life. 
We wondered aloud what theological terms we might coin if we were drawing on imagery from early 21st century technology and society. The gospel, and the church, need continuous retranslation into the culture, and a lot of that will simply mean experiments. So I really hope Geochurche works, but even if it doesn't, there'll be valuable translation lessons. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

About to Finish Your Sermon?

This should probably be posted on a Saturday night at 11.50pm. Or for those who really live on the edge, 7am on Sunday. There's nobody about to finish a sermon on Monday afternoon. Or if you are, how on earth do you manage that?

More superb stuff up recently at Anglican Memes, this made me laugh.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Absent Fathers Day

'The family' is in rapid flux - the traditional father/sole earner combination of the early to mid 1900s is dying out, and the traditional dual parent family is rapidly following.

Fractured Families, a report issued earlier this week by the Centre for Social Justice, observes:
One in two children born today will not grow up with both their parents and every year an additional 20,000 people, mainly women, join the throngs of those raising children more or less singlehandedly. One million children have no meaningful contact at all with their fathers, and that’s a conservative estimate.

The personal and social costs are huge:
Such breakdown would matter not a lot if the human and economic costs were insignificant. But they are in fact devastating. Children with separated, single or step-parents are 50 per cent more likely to fail at school, have low self-esteem, struggle to make friends and with their behaviour. They often battle with anxiety or depression throughout the rest of their lives. 

Adults’ mental and physical health can take a huge knock when relationships crumble, making it much harder for them to achieve at work and be the parents they want to be. The costs are eye-watering – rising to £49 billion per annum by the end of this Parliament, it’s more than the Government’s whole defence budget.

There is an epidemic of family breakdown, and whilst the government showers sticking plasters at the symptoms (mental health problems, educational failure, substance abuse etc.) nothing is done about the illness. Government after government has shied away from significant investment in family stability, investing in relationships & marriage and encouraging people to stay together.

92% of lone parent families are headed by the mother. Even at birth, 20% of children live with only 1 parent, by the time they are teenagers this is nearly 50%. For up to 3 million children tomorrow will be Absent Fathers Day, and here are some of the the consequences:
Children who experience family breakdown are more likely to 
  • experience behavioural problems; 
  • perform less well in school; 
  • need more medical treatment;
  • leave school and home earlier; 
  • become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age; 
  • and report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence and adulthood.
The report points out the structural issues, as well as the personal ones. At the more dramatic end of the scale Fathers4Justice highlight the way that family support often leaves dads out of the picture. Our experience of ante-natal classes was a lot of stuff about the mechanics of birth and feeding the baby, and nothing at all about how to parent together and support each other as mother and father, even though it was a prime opportunity to support new parents in that way. In other cases the father simply walks away. The overall effect is that over 1 million children in the UK never see their father, and up to a million more have little or no meaningful contact.

The UK is near the bottom of international leagues on this. It's peculiar that in some areas of childrens policy, league tables are assiduously compiled and published (education) but in others they are completely ignored.

The full report goes into a lot of detail, statistics, and analysis;
 -  for example that cohabiting couples are 2 to 2.5 times more likely than married couples to break up, which in turn has consequences for the nearly 2m (and rising) number of children in 2-parent cohabiting households.  

 - Or that for every £6,000 in reactive spending to family breakdown, the government spends only £1 on prevention. 

 - Or that 76% of young people in custody have an absent father. 

It's not a simple issue, there are multiple causes, from culture to cost (the sheer cost of getting married makes it unavailable to low-income families). Whatever you think about same-sex marriage, in the light of the above, is that really the top priority in family policy? Shouldn't we be debating all this instead? 

So pray for us dads, absent and present, on Fathers day, for mums, for children. And pray that this will be the generation where the tide of family breakdown turns back, and we get the political and civil and cultural leadership to make that happen. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fathers Day: Time for Britain to Man Up?

I was talking to our FE College chaplain earlier this week, who gets involved in a lot of pastoral support cases at the college, often because he's the only male in the student support team. He remarked on the increasingly common situation of children being brought up with no male role models for the first 11 years of their lives (most primary teachers are female, and almost all nursery staff), and the knock-on effects of that for students well into their teens. 

The Centre for Social Justice reports this week on the rising prevalence of absent fathers, and the cost of that on the mothers and children they leave behind, and society at large:

"For children growing up in some of the poorest parts of the country, men are rarely encountered in the home or in the classroom. This is an ignored form of deprivation that can have profoundly damaging consequences on social and mental development.

"There are 'men deserts' in many parts of our towns and cities and we urgently need to wake up to what is going wrong."

.....The report warns that the absence of fathers is linked to higher rates of teenage crime, pregnancy and disadvantage.

It is also costly. The CSJ puts the total cost of family breakdown at £46 billion a year, or £1,541 per taxpayer, a figure which has risen by nearly a quarter in the last four years. On current trends, the cost of family breakdown is projected to hit £49 billion by the end of this Parliament.

The CSJ criticises the lack of Government investment in families, saying that for every £6,000 spent on picking up the pieces after a split, just £1 is spent on helping to keep families together.
The report accuses the Prime Minister of neglecting his election pledge to lead the "most family-friendly Government ever".

The family stability agenda "has barely been mentioned", the CSJ says, while comprehensive action to tackle existing policy barriers to family stability "has been almost entirely absent" (more here)

There's an immediate knee-jerk response, that all this talk about family breakdown stigmatises single mums, so we shouldn't talk about it. It's the shut-down-the-discussion equivalent of saying that if you question immigration, you're a racist, or if you have second thoughts about gay marriage, you're a homophobic bigot

But this is the wrong response. From the CSJ blog: Since 2010, the formation of lone-parent families has continued to rise at a rate of 20,000 per year. By the time of the next election, we will have crashed through the two million barrier. The CSJ would be the last organisation to indulge in lone-parent bashing; our Alliance of several hundred grassroots charities tackling social breakdown works day in, day out, with parents raising children on their own. They are the ones who tell us how tough it is, how much harried mums (only eight per cent of those raising children on their own are dads) would appreciate an extra, reliable pair of hands in the home on a permanent, committed basis.

For too long a harrowing litany of statistics has been buried through the fear of stigmatising those who rarely chose to go it alone, but in so doing we have, as a society, ignored the lack of choice around parenthood facing so many women and men in low-income neighbourhoods. Aspirations to marry are solid across the social spectrum, but the cultural and financial barriers to realise those are almost insuperable, especially in the pockets of intense disadvantage we identified where up to three quarters of families are headed by only one person.

The full Fractured Families report will appear here once published later this week. It would be easy to have our superficial celebrations of Fathers Day this weekend, but each year that 'celebration' is non-existent for more and more children, and more and more fathers. Do Dads need to man up, and stick around for the children they bring into the world (or not bring children into the world until they've decided to stick around?). Does government and society need to do more in supporting men as fathers, and supporting couples as parents and partners? Forget stigmatising, this is a tragedy on a massive scale and is crying out for some hard thinking and courageous leadership. 

Toxic texts and Christian-Muslim relations. In Dorset, of all places.

a couple of events coming up soon at nearby Sherborne Abbey, as part of their Insight programme. Venue is the Digby Hall in Sherborne, and I think you have to pay a few quid, but should be worth it:

The Toxic Narratives

Dr Casey Strine

War in the Old Testament

Wednesday 19th June 2013, 7.30 PM

The Bible is the source of many much loved Sunday School stories, David & Goliath, Samson, Adam & Eve and others. But there is a darker side. Do genocide, ritual mutilation and retributive justice have any place in a Christian book? In this lecture Casey Strine will discuss parts of the Bible many Christians prefer to avoid, including the war narratives of Joshua and Judges and the polemic of some of the Psalms.

Coming soon:

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali

God in Muslim-Christian Encounters:
Are we talking about the same thing?

Wednesday 26th June 2013, 7.30 PM

Bishop Michael is amongst those church leaders who have argued most strongly for a clear understanding of the differences between Christianity and Islam. He was General Secretary of the Church Mission Society 1989–1994 He was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1994, and in 1999 entered the House of Lords as one of the “Lords Spiritual”, the first religious leader from Asia to serve there.
He retired as Bishop of Rochester in 2009 to take up the role of Director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

And Now the Good News

News from St. Pauls:

Capital Vision 2020 has the goal of creating or renewing a hundred worshipping communities and doubling the number of young people involved in local Christian community in London.

Bishop Richard Chartres quipped that he was constantly told by the media he must be very depressed because of dwindling church numbers. However, he said the opposite was true.

"How can we get the message through that the reality is quite different?" he said.

He quoted figures from a new report due to be published by the diocese stating that there are now 1,000 projects being run by Anglican churches across the capital, benefitting 200,000 people, and supported by 10,000 volunteers. According to the report, £17 million has been raised by churches to meet social needs in their areas.

and it's not just London:
  •      A Church Army study of Fresh Expressions of church covering 6 dioceses in detail so far, has identified discovered 360 newly planted churches. They make up 10% of diocesan membership, and roughly 75% of members are people who had previously dropped out of church, or who had never been involved and had no Christian background.
  •       Prior to his consecration, Justin Welby did a prayer pilgrimage to 6 cathedrals. Expected turnout to pray with him was 3-400, actual turnout was 2-3000, and several people became Christians at those events.
  •       Exeter Diocese set a target for growing its church membership in 2009, which was met with a mixed reaction at the time. It's since grown by 11%, 2nd best in the CofE. Using money from Exeters mission fund, a church in one rural village (pop 200) established a new all-age service, and now has 10 new adults and 15 new children regularly attending it.
  •       In Lichfield  diocese, 2000 people joined local churches in  2011-12 who previously had no Christian faith or church connection. 
  •       There are 1800 registered ‘Messy Churches’ in the UK, with an average of 55 at each one. There were none in 2005.
  •        750,000 ‘Diamond Jubilee Bibles’ were sold last year, 5x more than expected, as a Jubilee themed gift for people to give away.
in the meantime the CofE is at the forefront of global campaigns to tackle world hunger and poverty, focused on the G8 summit next week, and at the local level the church is hugely involved in practical work to support and bless the vulnerable. I'm not sure where the stat comes from, but I heard that of 30,000 parent and baby groups in the UK, 27,000 are run by churches.

Because this is good news, it generally won't find its way into the media, but each stat here is a life touched, changed, blessed by God through his people.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013


With one or two exceptions, I've avoided blogging on same-sex marriage. The bishops of the CofE in the Lords have issued a statement today saying that they'll 'constructively engage' in trying to make the same-sex marriage bill as good as it can be, and seem to have accepted that it will become law.

I was struck by this part of the statement:  it is crucial that marriage as newly defined is equipped to carry within it as many as possible of the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace.

This recognises that the passage of the bill will introduce a new definition of marriage. As it currently stands, that definition does not include a notion of sexual fidelity (the flipside of having no definition of adultery), of the complimentarity of the sexes, of procreation within marriage, or of consummation. It is therefore significantly different to what I signed up to on my wedding day nearly 17 years ago, and to the churches stated teaching on marriage, which in turn is reflected in our wedding liturgies. 

Two questions:
Firstly: if the Same-Sex Marriage Act definition of marriage becomes the 'official' definition, do we need to coin another term to signify committed relationships which include the above elements? One tweeter yesterday suggested 'Holy Matrimony', which has pedigree, but sounds a bit 1662. It also misses out the fact that none of the above 4 elements are specifically religious.

Secondly: if clergy are to continue as 'clerk in holy orders', and to act as registrars for marriage, what is our legal status now that the state definition of marriage has changed? In presiding at, and registering, a marriage, I'm already doing something which goes by the same name as a civil marriage ceremony, isn't the same, but has sufficient overlap to be ok. If the new definition of marriage leaves out 'the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace', then at what point do civil and church marriage become two separate-but-related, rather than overlapping, things? In other countries civil and church weddings are kept separate, and  maybe it's time to reckon with that here as well. As Jonathan Chaplin puts it:

I don’t literally mean that I was married twice on the same day but only that my marriage was solemnized in two successive ceremonies. Here I want to argue that the great advantage of this two-step arrangement is that it puts on clear display the quite distinct roles of church and government in the public recognition of marriage, to the benefit of both. It affirms both roles while avoiding a blurring of their complementary objectives. It also protects the proper freedom of both church and government to operate on their own understandings of marriage. It is a model I wish to commend to the Church of England – indeed to all churches. I also want to argue the more specific point that the longstanding expectation that Anglican parish churches will marry any legally eligible resident has now become a burden from which the Church of England should seek to extricate itself. These two reforms would be mutually reinforcing in working towards the goal of liberating the church to witness better to the truth it professes about marriage. (In fact, if the first were achieved, the second would follow automatically.)

What would the impact be? We've got more church weddings this year than at any time since I joined this church, and I love the fact that the CofE is open to anyone in the parish who wants to be married here. It's a great chance to explore spiritual and relationship questions with people, and I also think we offer a much better marriage preparation and support package. Simply as a service to families and to the community, I wouldn't want to see that lost. 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Justin Welby's speech on same-sex marriage in the Lords

....It is clearly essential that stable and faithful same sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage. Although the majority of Bishops who voted during the whole passage of the Civil Partnerships Act through your Lordships' House were in favour of civil partnerships a few years ago, it is also absolutely true that the church has often not served the LGBT communities in the way it should. I must express my sadness and sorrow for that considerable failure. There have been notable exceptions, such as my predecessor Archbishop Ramsey who vigorously supported decriminalisation in the 1960s. 
It is also necessary to express, as has been done already, total rejection of homophobic language, which is wrong – and more than that, sickening. 
However, I and many of my colleagues remain with considerable hesitations about this Bill. My predecessor Lord Williams of Oystermouth showed clearly last summer, in evidence during the consultation period, that it has within it a series of category errors. It confuses marriage and weddings. It assumes that the rightful desire for equality – to which I’ve referred supportively – must mean uniformity, failing to understand that two things may be equal but different. And as a result it does not do what it sets out to do, my Lords. Schedule 4 distinguishes clearly between same gender and opposite gender marriage, thus not achieving true equality. 
The result is confusion. Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated, being different and unequal for different categories. The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape with same gender and different gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society – as we’ve already heard – is weakened. These points will be expanded on by others in the debate, I’m sure, including those from these benches.
For these and many other reasons, those of us in the churches and faith groups who are extremely hesitant about the Bill in many cases hold that view because we think that traditional marriage is a corner stone of society, and rather than adding a new and valued institution alongside it for same gender relationships, which I would personally strongly support to strengthen us all, this Bill weakens what exists and replaces it with a less good option that is neither equal nor effective. This is not a faith issue, although we are grateful for the attention that government and the other place have paid to issues of religious freedom – deeply grateful. But it is not, at heart, a faith issue; it is about the general social good. And so with much regret but entire conviction, I cannot support the Bill as it stands.
full text here. Worth reading.
I've been struggling to put into words my own thoughts on the matter, not least because of trying to second-guess the reactions of other people. But this says a lot of what I would want to say, and says it better than I could. 

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Persecution Would Be Easier

60 years from the coronation and anointing of the Queen, head of the Church of England, in a national church, our Christian head of state no longer 'rules' over a Christian country. The long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith - or is it the voice of George Carey? - finds itself fighting, and losing, a series of battles over lost moral beachheads.

Persecution would be easier. In those countries where the state has set itself against the church and the gospel, it's easier to know who your enemies are, and in some ways it's an easier task to identify a Christian worldview within that setting, because it's so clearly not the worldview of the state and prevailing culture. In post-Christian Britain, with bishops in Parliament and vicars acting as state registrars in weddings, things aren't so cut and dried. As society drifts into uncharted waters, it's harder to discern what cultural changes are a drift away from Christian moorings, and what changes merely expose of idolatry, the conflation of class or cultural norms with Christian faith. Sea of Faith is a case in point, a 'Christian' movement that married the modernist spirit of the 20th century just as everyone else left it behind for something less reductionist. 

Gillan Scott puts it well:
whether we are willing to admit it or not we are in the last throes of Christendom in our country.  The religious foundations of our society are in places being replaced by a notional belief in equality for all where religion is put on an equal footing with a whole range of other elements of our society’s make-up.  Christian belief no longer defines the law, but instead is increasingly subject to it.  The problem inevitably now comes in how ‘equality’ is interpreted and who makes the final decision on it.

The hardest work is ahead of us. Moral positions we used to take for granted have to be argued for, and there are some that will simply not make sense to folk outside the church. Jesus says of the Holy Spirit 'the world can neither see him nor know him' (John 14) - some of God's wisdom is simply not available on human channels. So, for example, if marriage is a divine 'given', a calling and structure built into creation by God, which (despite its evolutions) remains at heart the lifelong commitment of a man and a woman and the best context for raising children, there will be a point at which non-Christians simply don't get what we're saying. If marriage it's God's design for sexuality and family life, the fact that it is God's design will cut no ice with people who don't believe in God. It will not make sense.

There are two sorts of intellectual laziness which we're in danger of. The first is the uncritical absorption of cultural values into the Christian faith, which comes from a failure to think through our faith properly and be clear about our theology and foundations. The second is the uncritical rejection of cultural values, excused by biblical proof texts about 'the world', and failure to think clearly, critically and well about life in all its dimensions. The world desperately needs a robust Christian critique and worldview of wealth, economics, war, politics, leadership, poverty, disability, human rights, luxury, justice, power, sexuality and creation. The danger is that people only hear us talking about sex. Here's an exercise: visit Thinking Anglicans. Despite a wide range of topics covered by  Simon and the blogging, team, commenters only seem to want to discuss one thing. Discuss.

British culture is ever more rapidly peeling away from Christian foundations, values and institutions, often leaving the institutions (the most visible signs) long after their foundations have been eroded. As a child I used to dig trenches and holes all the way down the beach as the tide withdrew, to try to keep the water as far up the beach as I could, even though the water source had receded. I think we're right to still do a bit of that, even as the tide goes out. It simply makes sense: if God has made us, loves us, and knows what's best for us, then it's best for us whether we believe in him or not. 

If we can do that without sounding like whining reactionaries, then that would be great, but I'm sure the media and blogosphere can make even the most moderate voice sound like a phobic bigot by taking things out of context. Maybe we will get both the tone and content of our apologetics right, and still it won't get a fair hearing. That's the reality of living in a fallen world.